Building a fun Commander deck, for me, usually means picking a sweet theme and sticking to it as hard possible. The theme could be mechanical, like a tribal deck, a reanimator deck, or a deck based around triggered abilities. Or it could be more flavorful, like a deck focusing on the crew and history of the Weatherlight or a deck based on your favorite band’s first album. It could even just be a deck full of your favorite cards! Often, the goal is to express yourself via a deck and the choices you make with that deck.
If the deck you’ve assembled is a standalone piece of creative energy that makes a statement rather than taking a shot at victory when you sit down at a table, that’s great. Go wild making sure all 99 cards support your theme and making gameplay-related sacrifices in order to find your fun. If your deck’s goal is to win even some of the time, however, you may have to carve out some slots in your deck for that pesky thing we call interaction. Yes, sometimes your opponents want to do whatever their deck does, and you may feel somewhat obligated to stop them. Sometimes your opponents may go so far as to try to stop you from executing your plan, which might make you want to stop them from stopping you… and so on.
My goal in this series (which may appear more sporadically than sequentially) is to show off cool ways to take the fight to your opponents and give you a menu to choose from when you’re slotting “hate cards” into your decks. Hopefully some of these cards even support your deck’s theme and feel more like congruent choices than compromises. They’re not all Tormod’s Crypt, I promise (although if you’re heavy on improvise and artifact synergy, Tormod’s Crypt looks a lot better—see what I mean about congruent choices yet?)
Graveyard Hate in Commander
We’re starting off this time around with the graveyard. A while back, a friend of mine asked me the following question on Twitter:
Well, this is a tricky one, isn’t it? Blowing up permanents that are on the battlefield feels immediately impactful as the landscape of the game changes right away. Unless there’s some effect that’s about to pull something out of the graveyard that you stop at instant speed or a permanent on the battlefield that’s threatening to raise the dead when its controller’s next turn comes around, interacting with your opponent’s graveyard just doesn’t feel the same. Instead of stopping things from happening on the board, the things that graveyard hate stops are often in your opponents’ hands and lurking in their libraries, rotting away. It’s much easier to notice the absence of an artifact locking down your board than it is to notice opponents sighing and glumly passing their turn with a copy of Praetor’s Counsel staring at them from their grip.
I think this is a perception thing. The graveyard, many say, is just another hand in Commander. It’s slightly harder to access, but decks of any single color, not to mention color combination, can get in there and extract plenty of value. With that in mind, blowing up graveyards in the midgame should be almost as celebrated as wrathing the board away. Even though it’s not as immediately impactful, imagine what could have happened in a couple of turns.
Now that we’ve covered some theory, let’s get to that menu I talked about earlier. I’ll go category by category because it helps me compartmentalize the cards and think about what makes sense with my decks and playstyles, but let me know if you think a more color-oriented or other alternative structure would read better in the future. I’ve tried not to include cards that are outright terrible, but some of these cards are absolutely better than others, sometimes by significant margins. You probably want to play some graveyard hate, but how much? Three to five cards? It depends on your deck and the environment you play in. Let’s go!
Hey Now, There are All-Stars
Chainer is probably at his best as a commander, but he could play well in a mono-black deck as well. The paying of life is easily offset in mono-black, and while the loss of the Nightmares when Chainer leaves the battlefield makes him look like Scarab God Jr., the anthem effect makes up for the idea that you might make a Nightmare version of something smaller than a 4/4.
I used to see Dimir Doppelganger a lot more than I do these days, but I still think the card is great. The creatures that people want to reanimate are often ones that Dimir Doppelganger wants to copy, and even if you have to nab a small ETB creature once in a while, the effect is very much worth it.
Somebody once told me Ethereal Absolution was fun to play in Limited, and I took issue with that, but it’s a lot more palatable in Commander. It puts the shape of an Elesh Norn on its forehead without being quite as devastating, and it lets you take apart graveyards bit by bit while making some nasty 2/2 flying Spirits.
Nezumi Graverobber is probably the most obvious of these. It demands that you empty an opponent’s graveyard before it turns into a value machine, which makes the duality of its goals fairly clear. The card literally forces you to do your homework before you go play in the dirt (graveyard dirt… ew.)
Puppeteer Clique grabs two things, eventually, out of your opponents’ graveyards. Only creatures, sure, but wouldn’t your opponents prefer to grab these back out of their graveyards someday instead of seeing them exiled after some evil Faeries pull their strings for a while? Keep in mind that the best choice for Puppeteer Clique’s trigger isn’t always the one that gets you the most value now; instead, it might be the one that denies your opponent the most value later.
The Scarab God is an unspeakable monstrosity of a card, but if you’re willing to devote your mana to its activated ability (and you should be), you can rip creatures out of opposing graveyards and make them the leaders of your card advantage army. Don’t be a greedy movie villain and overlook the cards in graveyards that could kill you later in favor of ones that look like big money right now!
These cards are the epitome of public enemy for graveyard decks as long as you’ve got a way to blink them or otherwise recur them. Roon and Brago players, I think these cards would be good for you, and you’d be good for them. Loaming Shaman just got a reprinting at uncommon and should be easy to pick up, and even though Angel of Finality hasn’t seen too many printings, it’s still relatively affordable.
I know it seems weird in the context of this article, but sometimes you don’t actually need to mess with the graveyard. Sure, clearing out graveyards just for fun means you can stare at those empty zones and enjoy the silence, but it’s good to have options, right? The two charms are classic options here, and of these cards, they are the most flexible… or they were until Kaya’s Guile got printed. Entwining that spell isn’t always worth the full six mana, but it is a lot of value. Return to Nature is a nice upgrade for those of us packing Naturalizes, and Shred Memory is a limited-access tutor. Consecrate // Consume lets you choose between instant speed point removal in the graveyard (along with a card) or the kind of edict effect you’re actually happy to play. Finally, both Primal Command and Temporal Cascade are primarily for other things, but if you just can’t get enough graveyard hate, they’re here to help.
Every Grave I’m Shufflin’
Sometimes hatin’ is bad. Not bad as in “don’t do it”, just bad like you’re playing blue and green and don’t have too many options other than shuffling graveyards into libraries. Sure, you can play the same old artifacts, but maybe you have better synergies with these cards? Need blue symbols for Sanity Grinding? Gotta cast all the instants and sorceries? Look, I’m not an expert on your decks, but I am an expert on weird cards to put in your decks, and here’s a bountiful selection.
You could easily do worse than Clear the Mind and Learn from the Past, though. Shuffling a graveyard away and then drawing a card is a decent outcome for 3 mana, and it is weirdly better at 4 because the latter is at instant speed. Mnemonic Nexus at least gets everyone’s graveyard. Quest for Ancient Secrets is an interesting option as a “Seal of Graveyard Removal” if it comes out early but does a much worse impression of Tormod’s Crypt when you topdeck it on turn 17. The relevant half of Struggle // Survive at least comes on the heels of a mediocre point removal spell, and I wouldn’t hesitate to play it in a lower power environment when I’m not using my own graveyard.
Krosan Reclamation and Memory’s Journey acquit themselves weirdly well by being instant-speed answers to targeted reanimation or recursion that you can use twice, but they won’t stop a big Command the Dreadhorde or Patriarch’s Bidding. Still, being able to take multiple shots at graveyards is valuable. Gaea’s Blessing is decent anti-mill tech for those who won’t play Eldrazi titans, and Dwell on the Past and Stream of Consciousness are kind of bad, although I suppose there are some very niche reasons to play Arcane spells or just cheap spells in general.
Finally, Repopulate gets the thing that usually matters most out of the graveyard—creatures—while still cycling itself away if you don’t need it. Also, it has some cute ferrets on it. Are those ferrets? I would specifically like article comments about this.
I Call You and Say, Come Here
Sometimes the best way to do damage control for walking corpses (okay, not Walking Corpse) is to take your opponents’ graveyards apart and use them for your own purposes. If an opponent has creatures in their graveyard that are bad news, manifest them with Ghastly Conscription just like that necromancer in the art with their arms outstretched. Hedonist’s Trove ensures that all of the good that will ever come out of one opponent’s current graveyard will benefit you, not them. Necromancer’s Covenant tears apart a graveyard and crushes all your opponent’s hopes of happiness, or at least reanimation, and replaces them with 2/2 lifelinkers.
Sometimes the next big thing to come to the game is some kind of repeatable recursion, and the best way to beat that is repeatable graveyard removal. If you’ve seen their creature before and don’t want to see it again, you should probably look into these cards.
Agent of Erebos and Ashiok, Dream Render are the only two that can get an entire yard (or yards, in Ashiok’s case) gone over and over again. The Agent plays well in enchantment decks while Ashiok is more about playing against tutors.
Obviously the creatures with activated abilities that don’t cause them to tap are the most flexible, like Apostle of Purifying Light, Pharika, God of Affliction, and Scavenging Ooze. It may seem like Pharika’s snakes are a downside when you give them away, and that’s true, but you can try to spin it politically.
Next in order of utility are probably the tappers, like Carrion Beetles, Deadeye Tracker, Deathrite Shaman, Rag Dealer, Selfless Exorcist, and Thraben Heretic. I’d also include Kaya, Orzhov Usurper in this category—planeswalkers don’t tap, but they only get used once per turn, so it’s mostly the same. Of these, Deathrite Shaman is the obvious standout, followed by Deadeye Tracker, as the rest provide only marginal utility or none at all.
The remainder is a little scattered. Curse of Oblivion is great if you slam it on someone with a graveyard Commander in the early game, but when the Mimeoplasm player just Traumatizes themselves or activates Mirror-Mad Phantasm, you might feel a little disappointed in your spooky curse. Deathgorge Scavenger and Skullsnatcher both rely on combat to do their work, and both are probably best in tribal decks (Dinosaurs and Ninjas respectively, although please send me your Rat Tribal lists.) Mardu Woe-Reaper is a must in a Warriors deck, especially after how well that type was supported in Battlebond. Last but certainly not least is Stonecloaker, an instant-speed, buyback, graveyard point-removal spell disguised as a 3/2 that you can also use to rescue another creature. Just watch out for savvy opponents who blow up your sweet creature with Stonecloaker on the stack.
A Zombie deck can be a real superbeast, but you might still want to mess with other players’ graveyards while you’re doing your grim work. Cemetery Reaper and Withered Wretch are probably the best of these, but you might find use for some of the others. Crypt Creeper and Famished Ghoul get a little better with Zombie recursion, with Crypt Creeper being the winner in terms of rate. Entrails Feaster is a Zombie Cat that feasts upon the rat or other creatures in your opponents’ graveyards, so leave some snacks there for it. Disposal Mummy should probably just go out with the rest of the trash, but if your Zombie deck has white for Varina and the Amonkhet nonsense, I guess go for it? (Or just play red for Pyre Zombie and Deadapult instead!)
(More Than) Two Point Removals for Honesty
Sometimes, all you need is to get that one pesky card out of your opponent’s graveyard right now at instant speed. You see one of your opponents fire off one of these cards—they know they’re right, they do it right, and you wonder, “Could I get to be like that?” Well, you could if you just slot some of these one-card wrecking machines into your decks.
Coffin Purge and Purify the Grave both have flashback, which is pretty huge for cards like this—just getting your opponent one time isn’t good enough most of the time, and leaving a deterrent in your graveyard (or a card your opponents forget about) can be really big. Cremate and a cycled Grixis Sojourners both won’t cost you a card, which is also huge as being down a card to thwart just one opponent can set you back against the table.
Never // Return plays double duty as point removal for the living and the dead. Rapid Decay and its smarter, more successful cousin Scarab Feast both have cycling when you don’t need them. Heap Doll has artifact synergies, Trinket Mage synergies, Shirei, Shizo’s Caretaker synergies, and more. Suffer the Past scales to the size you need and doubles as a Drain Life. And last but not least, Faerie Macabre is both free and an ability, which makes it easy to use and hard to stop.
Exile on Main Street
It’s important to shine a light on spells that just blast an entire graveyard (or all graveyards) out of existence. A lot of these play double duty: Burn Away as removal, Crypt Incursion as life gain (and a really good way for a mill deck in Modern to beat my Eldrazi Tron deck in a league the other day *grumble grumble grumble*), and Identity Crisis as hand destruction (or “hand death” if you are a person of true culture). Ravenous Trap is more single-use but does a really good job countering a turn where an opponent spends lots of resources dumping cards into their graveyard. Remorseful Cleric is a wandering spirit you won’t regret putting in a tribal spirit deck or any deck featuring Reveillark, Sun Titan, or Dusk // Dawn.
The spells that hit all graveyards are more limited in number. Honor the Fallen only takes out creatures but can gain you a ton of life at instant speed, whereas Morningtide takes out everything but at sorcery speed. Honor the Fallen can also be put on Isochron Scepter to imitate Rest in Peace, but I’m not sure that’s the best move. Last and probably least, Phyrexian Scriptures exiles your opponents’ graveyards two turns after it’s played, so you might need to do some work proliferating it in order to get what you need when you need it.
Locked Out of Graving
These cards do a good job of keeping opponents’ cards from ever seeing the dim light of the graveyard, and, unluckily for them, that’s what I like. Leyline of the Void and Rest in Peace are pretty classic enchantments that stop shenanigans all over the place, whereas Wheel of Sun and Moon locks up a single opponent. Anafenza, the Foremost, Dryad Militant, Samurai of the Pale Curtain, and the always-forgotten Void Maw all keep cards from taking the graveyard journeys they aspire to, though being creatures they’ll catch a lot of grenades for you, too. Planar Void has a weird triggered ability where cards show up to graveyards and then show themselves out, leaving a brief window for interaction.
The Distant Future
Okay, so maybe artifacts are actually from the distant past, but if I admit that then this whole bit falls apart. The obvious candidates, like Relic and Crypt, are here, but it feels like those have been around since the year 2000. Plus, they aren’t always the best ones for the job. Sometimes you want graveyards to stick around and grow things like Sewer Nemesis but you don’t want them to be used, so you bring in Silent Gravestone or the newly reprinted Grafdigger’s Cage. If your opponents are all searching for hidden treasure, apply some pressure with Sentinel Totem and get a scry 1 in the bargain; you don’t even need to keep mana up to make the threat of activation feel real. If you want something like Relic but would like the power to pick your targets with the first ability, take Crook of Condemnation out for a spin.
Cranial Archive improves on Tormod’s Crypt by letting you draw a card, but it costs a whole four extra mana to get that card, so you’re really just paying for that weird brain fluid in the art that glows like phosphorous. Nihil Spellbomb cuts 2 mana off that cost and still gives you a card, but you have to have access to black mana. Thran Foundry looks like a fixed Feldon’s Cane from way back in the day, but it also gets other players’ graveyards. Phyrexian Furnace and Scrabbling Claws are both clearly precursors to Relic, but they don’t get rid of your graveyard. I recommend the Claws because they don’t require people to track graveyard order. Finally, Steamclaw is for your farm equipment theme deck and not much else.
Sure, some of these are really worse than Relic and Crypt, but if those cards give your friends at the Commander table hurt feelings, consider trying the others. The same answer isn’t always the answer!
The Forest’s Crazy Nectar
Sometimes you just want to turn your opponents’ dead creatures into Saprolings. Necrogenesis gets rid of those dead creatures and brings out the Saprolings that live beneath the dirt on a one-for-one basis, whereas Night Soil requires double the fuel but stays mono-green. Either way, you can create a squirming coil of tokens and counter the graveyard synergies your opponents have designed.
Soakin’ Up the Thirst of the Land
I’m here to lead you to these lands that you probably already understand. Bojuka Bog isn’t for every deck, but basically any deck with an appreciable need for black mana seems to play it, and I think that’s the right thing to do. Scavenger Grounds doesn’t even require you to play other Deserts, but if you do, you can make sure graveyards are imbibed by the sands more often.
Mud Like a Hole
I’d rather die than play a Mudhole, but if my opponent has this in their deck and I am on a graveyard-based land strategy, I’m going to get what I deserve.
All Hail Shadowfeed
Shadowfeed has the best flavor text of basically any card in the same way that the song “All Hail Shadow” from the game Shadow the Hedgehog has the best lyrics of basically any song. I strongly recommend that you read and memorize Shadowfeed and then never play it.
Okay, so those last two were just jokes, but the rest were serious (well, as serious as I get) and are cards you should consider when you’re building your decks. Sorry if you missed any of the music references in here, but I developed a goof and felt like I had to follow through. If you’re curious about any of them, let me know in the comments or on Twitter where I’m @RagingLevine. Oh, and I guess you can talk to me about graveyard hate too. And ferrets, apparently.